SUSD interim superintendent hopes for a permanent role within district

Dr. Denise Birdwell in her office at the Scottsdale Unified School District, 7575 E. Main Street. (photo by Melissa Fittro)

Dr. Denise Birdwell in her office at the Scottsdale Unified School District headquarters, 7575 E. Main Street. (photo by Melissa Fittro)

Nearly four months into a 12-month contract extension, Scottsdale Unified School District Interim Superintendent Dr. Denise Birdwell is continuing to march forward despite a cloudy future.

Dr. Birdwell hopes to become the permanent superintendent, but the decision is in the hands of the Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board, she says.

“I continue to serve at the will of the Governing Board,” said Dr. Birdwell in a Sept. 22 interview at Scottsdale Schools headquarters.

“If the Governing Board goes out for the superintendent search, I will put in for it. I’m enjoying Scottsdale, and I really enjoy the work we’re doing here. It’s very exciting work to do and I’m committed to staying to help Scottsdale continue to grow.”

During a Feb. 25 study session, the Governing Board voted 4-1 to defer the search for a permanent superintendent search until the 2016-17 school year. The dissenting vote was from Governing Board President Bonnie Sneed.

Pam Kirby, a Governing Board member, motioned for the deferment, citing that the district deserved to hold a thorough, thoughtful search.

Other districts kick-off their superintendent search during November, December and January, said board member Kirby during the February meeting.

“My concern is that this board will appear as if we are moving so fast — we took great criticism because of how fast we moved through the interim search process, but I personally defended it. It was what needed to be done,” said board member Kirby during the February meeting.

“I don’t believe we can defend racing through a permanent search process in the same manner.”

After previous superintendent Dr. David Peterson abruptly resigned, effective Jan. 4, five candidates were chosen for the interim superintendent position. Dr. Birdwell was the only candidate brought back for an interview, and subsequently awarded contract for Jan. 19 through June 30 worth a prorated annual $200,000 salary.

On April 7, the Governing Board voted unanimously to approve an annual contract worth $204,000 for Dr. Birdwell to continue serving as interim superintendent from July 1, through June 30, 2017. Her contract also includes: a $600 per month automobile expense; 20 paid vacation days; and 16 paid sick/general leave days.

Her contract is fair, and she is happy with it, she said.

Dr. Birdwell has over 30 years of education experience, fueled by passion to help others. Most recently she served as superintendent of the Higley Unified School District until her retirement in June 2015. She was employed by that district since 2007.

Her six-month retirement was in part to re-focus herself, and to spend time with family.

“This go-around, it allows me to have a different sense of purpose than I had when I was in my first 33 years. It’s a lot more enjoyable,” Dr. Birdwell explained.

Education: the career that starts all careers

Inspired by the educators in her own life, Dr. Birdwell found herself admiring the help others had offered to her when she needed it most.

Dr. Denise Birdwell

Dr. Denise Birdwell

She didn’t originally go into education, but has always been fueled by a passion for helping others. Her first career choice was emergency medicine, but quickly realized that wasn’t the right route.

“I started in the emergency medicine field and moved over to teaching after working on an ambulance and losing a patient. I realized that was not the field for me,” explained Dr. Birdwell.

“I chose to go to a field where I admired what teachers had done for me. That didn’t take but six months, to realize that education was really where I wanted to be.”

She went on to serve in the classroom for 14 years before transitioning into the administrative role.

“I chose to become an educator because I wanted to make a difference and I felt I could. That’s a passion I’ve never lost through my years,” she recalled. “I still think I can make a difference in the life of a child so that their life can be better.”

After receiving a bachelor’s degree of science in education from Mayville State University in North Dakota, she continued on to get her master’s degree in English from Northern Arizona University after mulling-over the idea of becoming a college professor.

She acknowledges she wanted to perfect her knowledge in English, because it was her worst subject as a young student.

“English was my weakest area and I then chose to major in English to overcome the weakest area of learning that I had,” she said.

She earned her doctorate in educational administration and supervision from Arizona State University.

“For me as an educator, I rise up every day knowing that I can make a difference in the lives of children,” she said.

“As an administrator, I get to do that through supporting teachers, through supporting administrators. So your audience has changed from when you were a teacher, but in reality you’re having a greater impact because you’re having an impact across the system of learning. I think that’s where that passion comes from.”

Since arriving in January, Dr. Birdwell has pushed the focus of student achievement to the forefront at Scottsdale Schools. Some of her alterations include:

  • Reorganizing the upper level district leadership;
  • Consolidating two schools;
  • Implementing world languages in elementary schools;
  • Upgrading the benchmark assessment program used to track student learning;
  • Recommending a $200 bond initiative and $8.5 annual override to pay for crumbling infrastructure and in-classroom needs that have been cut due to funding.

“I’m not going to say being student-focused was ever absent in Scottsdale, it’s just become the center of what we do,” said Dr. Birdwell. “It’s always been here, but now it comes to the forefront and says ‘you are our priority. The students in this community are our priority.’”

In the hands of the board

The SUSD Governing Board is in flux right now with three of its five seats up for re-election in November.

Kim Hartmann

Kim Hartmann

Board members Kim Hartmann and Ms. Kirby’s terms end in 2018. Incumbent Barbara Perleberg and newcomers Allyson Beckham and Sandy Kravetz are on the ballot to fill in the open seats.

In the eyes of board member Hartmann, Dr. Birdwell has done a great job thus far.

“I think Dr. Birdwell has done tremendous work, and she has started-off running from day one,” she said in a Sept. 22 phone interview. “She has been a significant contributor every step of the way.”

The board member says the decision on filling the permanent superintendent role is one that the board will make after having public conversations regarding the search.

“My hope is that we do that sooner than later,” she said. “Where we left off on our last public meeting about the search, we said we would do it appropriately in the fall. We are perfectly poised to do that.”

In a Sept. 14 question-and-answer series featuring the three governing board candidates, Ms. Beckham supported employing Dr. Birdwell permanently.

“I support pursuing permanent employment for Dr. Birdwell, starting with a full evaluation of her performance as interim superintendent,” said Ms. Beckham in the Independent article. “As a citizen on the outside of the board looking in over the last seven months of her interim role, I’ve seen a leader who has taken the time to assess our district and acknowledge the many challenges we face.”

Board member Hartmann says the decision to forgo a national superintendent search is at the discretion of the board.

“That’s kind of what we’re setting ourselves up for if the public and the board think that’s the right thing to do,” she said. “If we decide the search is not going to be necessary, based on where we’re at right now, then that’s where we’re at.”

Northeast Valley News Services Editor Melissa Fittro can be e-mailed at mfittro@newszap.com or can be followed on Twitter at twitter.com/melissafittro.

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